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Commonwealth Government Records about the Northern Territory

Establishment of patrol officers

A series of murders in the late 1920s and early 1930s ultimately led to the creation of a patrol officer service in the Northern Territory, similar to that which was already in existence in New Guinea.

First, in August 1928 a white dingo trapper, Fred Brooks, was murdered by a group of Aboriginal people at Coniston, 225 kilometres north-east of Alice Springs. Two Aboriginal men were arrested for the murder, stood trial in Darwin and were acquitted. Brooks' death was followed by a series of reprisal raids between August and October involving the deaths of many Aboriginal people. These raids became known as the Coniston Massacre. No charges were laid against the reprisal parties. A Board of Inquiry, appointed in December 1928 to examine 'the killing of natives in Central Australia by police parties and others', was presided over by police magistrate, A H O'Kelly, and found that 31 Aboriginal people had been killed and that in each case the death was justified on the grounds of self-defence.

Selected records relating to the Coniston massacre and Inquiry
National Archives, Canberra
Attacks on white men by natives – killing of natives – Central Australia (includes attachment titled 'papers returned by Mr O'Kelly'), 1928 A431, 1950/2768 part 1
Attacks on white men by natives – killing of natives – Central Australia includes attachment titled 'finding of Board of Enquiry with exhibits 1–13', 1928–50 A431, 1950/2768 part 2
Aboriginal people – government tribunal, 1928–29 A461, I300/1

Second, in September 1932 a group of Japanese fishermen working at Caledon Bay, in present day Arnhem Land east of Darwin, allegedly attacked and raped several Aboriginal women. The group was in turn attacked by Aboriginal men and five fishermen were killed. At nearby Woodah Island another incident involved the death of a white police constable, Albert McColl.

At first it was feared that these incidents might lead to reprisal raids by both sides. In the end, several Aboriginal men were persuaded to come to Darwin and stand trial for the murder of Constable McColl. The trials took place in August 1934 and several men were given 20 year jail sentences. One of the accused was Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda, who was sentenced to death.

The Coniston and Caledon Bay killings led the Government to accept an offer by anthropologist Donald Thomson to make a conciliatory visit to Arnhem Land. He ultimately persuaded the Government to free the men who had been sentenced to gaol. Wirrpanda, on the other hand, appealed against his sentence to the High Court, and in November 1934 he won his case.

Selected records relating to the trial and appeal of Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda
National Archives, Canberra
Aboriginal – arrest and trial for murder of Constable McColl – appeal to High Court, 1934–36 A1, 1936/4022 parts 1 to 3
Caledon Bay – natives apprehension and trial for murder, 1934 A432, 1934/929
Murder of Constable McColl at Woodah, 1934 A432, 1934/1437
Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda – appeal to High Court against sentence of death, 1934–35 A5520, A9178
Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda versus The King, 1934 A10074, 1934/47
National Archives, Melbourne
The King versus Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda, 1934–38 MP401/1, CL10336

The murders at Coniston and Caledon Bay ultimately led the Government to initiate a patrol officer service in the Northern Territory. The first patrol officer was Theodore (Ted) Strehlow, who took up his position in October 1936 and remained until 1942 when he joined the Army.

After World War II the Northern Territory was divided into six patrol areas and four additional patrol officers were appointed: Les Penhall, Syd Lyle-Kittle, Fred Gubbins and Ted Evans. They were all given anthropological training at the University of Sydney. Some officers later attended courses run by the
Australian School of Pacific Administration in Sydney.

Travel to the more remote areas of the Territory was not without its difficulties. In a report following his visit to Maningrida (east of Arnhem Land) in 1957 patrol officer Ted Egan wrote that he had travelled 365 miles, of which 280 was on foot and the remaining 85 were by canoe.5

Patrol officers prepared reports after each tour of inspection. These reports were forwarded to the Administrator, and are now held by the National Archives in Darwin under each officer's name.6

Selected reports prepared by patrol officers
National Archives, Darwin
Papers of patrol officer Theodore (Ted) Strehlow, 1934–36 F128
Patrol officer Theodore (Ted) Strehlow, 1936–39 F1, 1939/300
Patrol officer – Alice Springs and Jay Creek – correspondence files – unregistered, 1936–42 F127
Patrol officer – Alice Springs and Jay Creek – correspondence files, 1941–42 F126
Patrol officer Gordon Sweeney, 1943–46 F1, 1943/65
Patrol officer William (Bill) Harney, 1943–45 F1, 1944/275
Instructions issued to patrol officers, 1947–63 F132, F17
Patrol officer E J (Ted) Egan, 1957–59 F1, 1957/367


Chapter notes | All notes

5 NAA: F1,1957/367. Patrol officer E J (Ted) Egan, 27 September 1957.

6 The work of patrol officers has been described by Jeremy Long, The Go–Betweens: Patrol Officers in Aboriginal Affairs in the Northern Territory, 1936–74 (Darwin, 1992).


Chapter 8
Aboriginal People of the Northern Territory